WSU to lead Pacific NW aviation biofuel project

By Anna Austin | May 31, 2010
Posted July 14, 2010, at 11:52 a.m. CST

A regional renewable jet fuel collaboration will officially kick off at the end of the month, a project that will assess four states in the Pacific Northwest-Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana-to determine biomass feedstock growth, harvest, refining and transport options in relation to sustainable aviation fuel production.

Washington State University will lead the research efforts. Other collaborative partners include Alaska Airlines, Boeing, the Port of Seattle, the Port of Portland and Spokane International Airport. Research will include an analysis of biofuel feedstocks native to the Pacific Northwest region, including algae, oilseeds such as camelina and woody biomass.

The project will identify potential pathways and necessary actions to make aviation biofuel commercially available to airline operators servicing the Pacific Northwest region. A perfect candidate for its given role, WSU is well into biofuel research efforts, with numerous projects already underway. Though the biojet fuel collaboration was just recently publicly announced, it's been years in the making.

WSU, under the leadership of Vice President John Gardner, has been working with Boeing, the U.S. Air Force, SeaTac airport, Targeted Growth, Weyerhauser, Tesoro, and others on an aviation biofuels effort for a couple of years, according to WSU Agricultural Research Center Director Ralph Cavalieri. "The first part of the project was to engage in the discussions among the partners so that a demand for the biofuel would be created," he said. "Experience has shown us that demand for the fuel is essential if there is to be investment in the production of the fuel and the acquisition of reliable quantities of biomass. Washington is a natural location for this effort with so many of the needed partners being located in the state."
Scientists at the college have been working on biomass-to-aviation fuel projects that are supportive of the effort for quite some time, according to Cavalieri. "Of course, the major research effort we are undertaking is the development of the cropping system to produce the oilseed crops that will go to the crusher and ultimately be processed into standard jet fuel," he explained. "The constraint that the aviation industry and the Air Force placed on the project is to produce the oil from nonfood crops."

Two oilseed crops that are obvious candidates for the project are camelina and rapeseed, which is the nonedible version of canola.

"We have had a major effort underway for a number of years, funded by Washington (state), to examine biomass crops for biofuels," Cavalieri said. "The overarching biomass for biofuels project is led by professor Bill Pan, and it involves switchgrass and other fast growing perennial grasses, various oilseeds, etc."

A portion of that project, led by Cook Endowed Chair in Cropping Systems and Professor Scott Hulbert, involves camelina. Hulbert is the principal investigator for WSU's application for funds to USDA's Agriculture and Food Research Initiative in an upcoming round of grant competition for creation of a regional biomass for biofuels research center. "In that proposal, we are partnering with Oregon State University, Montana State University, the University of Idaho, the University of Washington, the USDA-Agricultural Research Service and others," Cavalieri said. "The goal is to advance the knowledge of how to produce oilseed crops in an economically and environmentally sustainable way in the Pacific Northwest with the goal of providing the necessary nonfood vegetable oil to meet the aviation industry's needs in the region."

Another project WSU has implemented is led by Regents Professor Norman Lewis, who has expertise in the basic plant science of woody plants, particularly poplar trees. "His research adjusts the biochemistry of the trees to make them more suitable for use in making biofuels and other bioproducts," Cavalieri said. "Dr. Lewis is leading an effort to secure USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture funds for a multi-institutional group to advance the production of aviation fuel from lignocellulosic biomass."

To add to the general topic of plant improvement, WSU has a number of faculty members who are modifying plants to alter the chemical makeup of the oils they express, to examine the genetics of plants for production of biomass and improve their ability to be produced with minimal or no additional inputs.

Assistant Professor Manuel Garcia Perez is leading a project involving the thermochemical conversion of lignocellulosic biomass through pyrolysis to bio-oil. "This, too, can be used to make aviation fuels after appropriate processing," Cavalieri pointed out. "His efforts are in conjunction with the Voiland School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering and with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory."

Another relevant project, led by Professor Shulin Chen, involves efforts to optimize algae production in northern states. "He has a substantial program, and DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) has already shown that oil from algae can be used to make jet fuel," Cavalieri said. "Dr. Chen is running a very large research program dealing with many other aspects of biofuel and bioproducts development."

In cooperation with PNNL, Professor Birgitte Ahring leads WSU's Bioproducts, Sciences, and Engineering Laboratory. "There are many ways that the work there pertains to aviation biofuels, but her primary effort is in the production of ethanol through microbiological processes with subsequent conversion to other biofuels and bioproducts," Cavalieri explained. "Finally, we have economists who are examining the economics of agricultural production of biomass and of transportation issues associated with this developing industry."

The Sustainable Aviation Fuels Northwest project is being funded by participating parties, and is expected to be complete in six months.